WASHINGTON – When Apple, Google, Microsoft and other tech giants united in outrage last summer over the National Security Agency’s unfettered spying, telecommunications giants AT&T, Verizon and Sprint – whose customers are also the targets of secret government spying – remained noticeably mum.
But now the phone companies are speaking up. In closed-door meetings with policymakers, they are taking a less accommodating stance with government and rattling the historically tight bond between telecom and the surveillance community.
It’s been extremely unusual for telecoms to resist any requests from the government, says software engineer Zaki Manian, who advocates against mass government surveillance.
The telecom companies have a long history of providing raw data dumps to the government and typically taking some money in return and calling it a day, Manian says.
Technology companies typically comply with requests for information about individual users but resist demands for bulk data.
But telecommunications companies share a connection with government unlike that of any other industry.
They have been tied to our national security agencies for all of their history, says Susan Crawford, a visiting professor at Harvard Law School who was a special assistant to President Barack Obama for science, technology and innovation policy.
During World War II and for decades after, telegraph companies such as Western Union – which was controlled by AT&T– turned over copies of international telegrams originating in the U.S. to the NSA and its predecessor agency. In the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, government agents reviewed tens of thousands of telegrams each month under Project Shamrock, deemed by lawmakers to be the biggest intelligence-intercept operation in U.S. history.
Since the earliest days of wiretapping in the late 19th century, telephone companies have assisted law enforcement and intelligence agencies. For decades, a series of laws cemented the relationship, including a 1994 wiretapping act that requires telecom companies to build networks that allow law enforcement to eavesdrop in real time.
But 2014 marks a pivotal moment for the telecom industry. White House policymakers are considering changes as debate about surveillance heightens in the aftermath of NSA spying exposed by former agency contractor Edward Snowden.
The central pillar of Obama’s plan to overhaul the surveillance programs calls for shifting storage of Americans’ phone data from the government to telecom companies or an independent third party. But telecoms don’t want that job.
Phone industry executives have privately told administration officials they don’t like the idea of storing phone records gathered by the NSA because they don’t want to become the government’s data minders. Companies say they are wary of being forced to standardize their own data collection to conform to the NSA’s needs.
Industry officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment on discussions with the administration.
CTIA-The Wireless Association, a wireless industry trade group, says the balance between national security and civil liberties can be achieved without the imposition of data retention mandates that obligate carriers to keep customer information any longer than necessary for legitimate business purposes.
The NSA’s massive collection of calling records under secret court orders was revealed by Snowden in June in the first of many disclosures about surveillance programs based on classified documents. Snowden was granted asylum in Russia in August and faces espionage charges in the U.S.
The Snowden documents also revealed NSA programs that scoop up data from the nation’s Internet companies and tap into Google and Yahoo’s data-center communications overseas.
The tech giants lashed out when news broke that their customers’ data was being tapped, escalating pressure on Obama to curb the NSA programs. And on Jan. 27, the government announced it will allow five companies – Google Inc., Microsoft Corp., Yahoo Inc., Facebook Inc. and LinkedIn Corp. – to share more information with the public about how often they receive orders to assist national security investigations.